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Jonathan Majors Goes Into the Multiverse

Idris Elba had to convince the actor to enlist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the (possibly) villainous Kang and his many variants. Now that he’s taken the plunge, he isn’t looking back.

Jonathan Bartlett, @bartlettstudio

It’s easy to look at Jonathan Majors’s meteoric career trajectory and wonder whether it wasn’t something he carefully planned out himself. The boxes he’s ticked over just the past two years include a film festival breakout in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an Emmy-nominated prestige cable drama lead in Lovecraft Country, a scene-stealing supporting role in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a wild debut as Marvel’s newest supervillain in Loki, and a charismatic leading turn in the western The Harder They Fall, which has been sitting around the top of Netflix’s most-watched list since its premiere. He’ll tick one more box this weekend when he makes his hosting debut on Saturday Night Live.

But, Majors says, none of this has been meticulously crafted. Quite the contrary: It took a push from The Harder They Fall costar Idris Elba to convince him to sign up for the MCU. “So many of the things I’m doing or have done I was, in some ways, at a very crucial point in opposition to,” he explains from a hotel room in London, where he’s been filming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. “I was not going to do Lovecraft Country, you know. I thought I was going to do theater and then I was going to do films and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of being a ‘TV guy.’”

Yann Demange, who directed Majors in White Boy Rick, eventually talked him into the HBO role that landed him his first Emmy nomination, but the actor was again uncertain when Marvel approached him to enter the MCU with a multi-project, multiyear commitment to appear as the (possibly) villainous Kang the Conqueror and his many variants. Though neither Majors nor Marvel is able to reveal just how extensive this undertaking may be, most Marvel actors sign a multi-project deal as a default, and by definition, the possibilities for Majors’s Kang are infinite—he or any of his alter egos could be time-traveling, regenerating, or generally popping up anywhere. Though a call from Marvel is widely regarded as a dream come true for most actors, Majors was, understandably, daunted.

“I had watched the films. Love Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, killed it,” Majors says. “[But] I was like, ‘I don’t think you want me. I don’t think you want what I’m going to do. Like, I don’t think you want that.’ That was my hesitation. I was like, ‘You got the right Black guy?’”

Majors, a graduate of UNC School of the Arts and the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale, is an unusual performer to say the least. If his idiosyncratic debut in Loki is any indication, Marvel was very interested in exactly the kind of unexpected and emotionally dense approach Majors tends to bring to any project but, ultimately, that’s not what convinced him to dive in. One night after shooting a scene together in The Harder They Fall, Majors and Elba—who joined the MCU in its earliest days as the Asgardian Heimdall in Thor—chewed over what it would really mean for Majors to take this gig. “He’s Idris Elba, you know, he’s a big dog, he’s done it all,” Majors says. “Here comes the youngster coming up, you know, and we were talking about work and the legacy of Black actors and all that stuff. And he said, ‘You can do that.’ What Dwayne Johnson has done to the game, what Idris Elba has done to the game, what Will Smith did to the game. This idea that the Black men can enter into a highly commercial world.”

Though Johnson and Smith’s blockbuster dominance and record-setting pay days are considered business as usual in 2021, Elba first entered the MCU more than a decade ago, and the decision to cast a Black actor as one of the Norse gods of Marvel lore sparked a racist backlash in some corners of the fandom. Elba enduring that response (and thriving in the Thor films) is, as Majors describes it, all part of “stretching it and stretching it and making more room for the fellow behind them.” When it came to the question of taking on Kang the Conqueror or similar blockbuster roles, Elba told Majors: “It’s on you now.”

Once Majors dove into his characteristically cerebral preparation for Kang, He Who Remains, and their many counterparts, he got more and more excited about the prospect of flexing his acting muscles playing different versions of the same characters. “It’s common knowledge that Kang has many iterations and he exists in many iterations,” he says. “That’s dope. So I’m reading and reading. Here is an archetype of a person that’s dealing with fate and destiny—and not just his own but others’, and he’s aware of it.”

Majors’s reading list included the Marvel comics (which he refers to as “the dramaturgy”), of course, but also Karen Armstrong’s A History of God and Friedrich Nietzsche’s meditation on the ubermensch in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Bryan Doerries’s The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. Majors had plenty of time to prep for Marvel as he hunkered down in New Mexico during the pandemic, waiting for The Harder They Fall to start filming again. Almost everyone else on the production left town to go back home, but Majors stayed put in near-isolation, unwilling to leave a project in progress.

For a performer like Majors, that level of deep commitment may be part of his hesitancy to take on longer-lasting projects like an HBO series or a long-running MCU role. Majors says somebody “very powerful” involved with The Harder They Fall told him not to bring any “of that Daniel Day shit” to set with him just before he was about to get on a plane to start training to play the gunslinger Nat Love. Panic set in. “I’m terrified,” he recalls. “Well then what do you want me to do? I can do a lot of things, but I only know how to act from a certain place. I said, you know, no pun intended, I’d stick to my guns.”

Majors brought the full force of his craft to the final showdown in The Harder They Fall between his character, Nat, and Elba’s Rufus Buck. The two have been at odds the entire movie while hardly sharing the screen, but in the final moments of the film, the pair delve deep into the emotional core of their conflict and not only does Majors deliver the kind of bone-deep performance we’ve come to expect from him, he draws out something next-level in Elba, as well. “We didn’t rehearse it,” Majors recalls. “Usually you do a blocking rehearsal. We kind of walked in as I mumbled the first line and he stood up and then we left, we went back to our corner and then we took it in one. Everything happened in one” (meaning that for every take the actors were able to run through the scene in its entirety, each with a different camera trained on them). Majors recalls that in the version that ultimately made it into the final cut, he started improvising and interjecting into Elba’s big monologue and Elba improvised in return, the two actors creating a kind of magical connection that’s rare to see. “We were just floating,” Majors says. “The whole thing was floating.”

That kind of unrehearsed magic may come in handy for Majors as he tackles Saturday Night Live this weekend. As of last Friday, the actor was in that hotel room in London making the uncharacteristic choice not to overthink it. “I don’t know if I’m, like, numb, like I can’t believe it, you know, or I’m just overwhelmed by it or, or what?” he says. “I had one freakout in bed where I hung up the phone and had a whole screaming fit. Rolling around in my bed. And then after that it’s been OK. But I’m really excited.”